In the past OTM has covered sock-puppetry -- the act of assuming another persona online to praise or defend the work of your real self. We’ve seen it done by art critics, comic book artists, and politicians. Well, now it's an orthodox rabbi. Bob speaks with Steven I. Weiss, an anchor and managing editor at The Jewish Channel, about the rabbi and his online persona.
BOB GARFIELD: In the past, we've covered sock-puppetry - the act of assuming another persona online to praise or defend the work of your real self. We’ve seen it done by art critics, comic book artists and politicians. Well, now for something completely different, a sock puppet mouthing praise and scholarly support for a prominent Orthodox rabbi. An investigation by The Jewish Channel revealed that real rabbinical scholar, Michael J. Broyde had created “Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser” to promote Broyde’s genius. Last week, Broyde resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the world's largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis, rather than face an investigation.
Steven I. Weiss is an anchor and managing editor at The Jewish Channel. Steven, welcome to the show.
STEVEN I. WEISS: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now this is not some obscure clergyman we’re talking about. Michael J. Broyde is, as they say in Yiddish, “a big macher.”
STEVEN I. WEISS: Definitely. He was responsible for altering the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews. So very much, I would say, it's like a U.S. senator.
BOB GARFIELD: Very accomplished, also, as it turns out, quite ambitious. But before we get to his ambitions, let's talk about the history of the phony character, Rabbi Herscel Goldwasser. When did he first emerge?
STEVEN I. WEISS: In the early nineties. That's the earliest published documentation I’ve found, with letters to scholarly journals and magazines, signing as Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser, for debates that obviously Broyde felt, in some way, he didn’t want to have under his own name.
BOB GARFIELD: So this went on for years, with this fictional character, promoting the real rabbi’s scholarly work and helping bolster his standing in the Jewish community. Tell me about the trajectory of his career.
STEVEN I. WEISS: Well, in the early nineties, he was almost a volunteer congregational rabbi in Atlanta. He was at Emory University, nothing especially noteworthy. And then just over the years, he developed a scholarly reputation that began to grow and grow. People to look at face value a lot of claims, such as the claim that he was on the shortlist to be chief rabbi of England, which, it turned out, might have been the result of another sock puppet of his playing with another reporter I know.
BOB GARFIELD: What [LAUGHS] - what, okay. This was a, a position to which Broyde aspir4ed, and he had the support of Hershel Goldwasser, who doesn't exist, and someone else online, who may also not exist.
STEVEN I. WEISS: A reporter named Miriam Shaviv, who used to be based in London. She had apparently relied on a source named David Weissman for her reporting that Broyde was on the short list to be chief rabbi of England. David Weissman is one of the aliases that I’d put out there in my first story. And the way he proved that he was a source within the search for the chief Rabbi of England, he quoted from Broyde’s application, which, obviously, we know now why he would have been able to do that.
There were intricate biographies for these fake personalities he created. He wove a very tangled web, and it goes from commenting on one of the preeminent rabbis in Atlanta, to engaging in debates in the pages of scholarly journals, to eventually joining a rival professional rabbinic group and trying to influence its policies and obtain access to its private communications.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, how did you get on to the sock-puppetry? Was it a tip? Was it a nagging suspicion on your part, what?
STEVEN I. WEISS: For the most part, it was tips from rabbis who were part of his arrival professional rabbinic group called the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which had been a breakaway from this much larger rabbinical group, to which Broyde was a number. And he had engaged in these extremely detailed dialogues and upset a fair number of people with his opinions, as Hershel Goldwasser, in this rival rabbinic group’s listserv. People were upset about this. And eventually, I heard from enough people, obtained enough of the communications that I could examine the IP addresses of those emails and find that they were not, in fact, sent from where Hershel Goldwasser claims he lived, in Israel, but they were sent from two locations in Atlanta, Emory University and a Comcast home subscriber account. And I obtained some communications from Michael Broyde that shared the same IP address.
And so, when I called him to discuss this character, he’d very much testified to me that this was a real person, that he'd had many interactions with him over the years. I asked him, well then how come all of his IP addresses match your IP addresses at Emory University and at your home in Atlanta? And his response was, what's an IP address?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Oops! Broyde denied having been a part of any kind of fraud. Your reporting on The Jewish Journal was last year. That denial has unraveled.
STEVEN I. WEISS: Well, within an hour of publishing the story, he came out with a letter admitting that he had done this. This came out on a Friday at noon. Before 9 am the next Monday morning, he had been given an indefinite leave of absence from the Rabbinical Court. The president of the Rabbinical Council of America called his conduct, quote, “extremely disturbing.” As of December, the Rabbinical Council of America announced it was launching what they call a Vaad Hakavod. It’s an ethical inquiry into his conduct.
He resigned in the first week of February, rather than face that ethical inquiry. And Emory University also launched an investigation, though they didn't seem to be genuinely interested in investigating the conduct that might have crossed academic ethical lines.
BOB GARFIELD: He remains on the faculty at Emory and he’s, at this point, not under investigation for academic fraud or anything like that.
STEVEN I. WEISS: No, in fact, in his resignation letter from the Rabbinical Council of America, he cited the Emory University investigation and said that they’d cleared him of these issues.
BOB GARFIELD: This went on for something like 20 years. How the hell did he get away with this for so long?
STEVEN I. WEISS: I think there was just no way for anyone else to prove this, and I think no one even thought it. These were occasional letters to this place or that place. In fact, all of my sources from each area of this deception that I spoke to were just shocked when it came out.
I mean, one of the most amazing examples of this was that there was a new prayer book that came out in 2009, to which many scholars had contributed, and the publisher, in his preface, thanked a series of rabbis who'd contributed. And, in particular, he started with, “I’d like to thank Dayan Michael Broyde,” which is Rabbinical Court Judge Michael Broyde. And he said, “And I also want to thank a series of other rabbis,” among them Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] A good man, that Hershel. Steven, thank you so much.
STEVEN I. WEISS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven I. Weiss is managing editor of The Jewish Chennel. Rabbi Broyde referred us to this statement from his resignation letter to the Rabbinical Council of America, where he did admit to inventing the Goldwasser character but denied any other online personas. He writes, quote, “I will work exceptionally hard to uphold the high standards that are expected of all of us. Hopefully, with the passage of time, the rabbinic community will see that I regret what I have done, have righted myself and am continuing to have a positive impact on Jewish community.”